Battle of San Fermo, 27 May 1859

The battle of San Fermo (27 May 1859) was Garibaldi’s second victory in two days and forced an Austrian army under General Karl von Urban to abandon Como.

On the night of 22-23 May Garibaldi crossed the Ticino River (the border between Piedmont and Austrian Lombardy) at the head of a force of 3,000 picked volunteers, and by the night of 23 May he had reached Varese. An Austrian army under General Karl von Urban attempted to push Garibaldi out of the town, but was defeated and forced to retreat (battle of Varese, 26 May 1859).

Urban reported that his single brigade had been defeated by 7,000 men. The Austrian command responded by giving him an extra two brigades, a total of 11,000 men if they were all together. His original brigade (Rupprecht) was at Como. During the morning and early afternoon of 27 May the second brigade (Augustin) was moved by train from Milan to Como. This gave him eight battalions of infantry (around 6,400 strong) along with the supporting cavalry and artillery.

Como should have been fairly easy to defend. The town sits on low ground at the southern tip of Lake Como, defended by high ground to the west. Garibaldi only had two lines of approach – the pass of San Fermo (to the north-west of Como) or via Camerlata, at the southern end of the mountains and south of Como. Urban decided to post a strong force at Camerlata, but he only posted a couple of companies of Hungarian troops at San Fermo. The rest of his army was posted in Como itself.

Garibaldi left Varese on the morning of 27 May and advanced towards Camerlata. After attracting the Austrian's attention he left a screening force at Olgiate (on the main road from Varese to Camerlata), while he led the main force north towards the mountains. This force then turned east and approached the San Fermo pass. The Austrians were caught out and the pass was only defended by the small force of Hungarians.

The Hungarians took up defensive positions in the church of San Fermo and a nearby inn, from where they could command the valley approaches. Garibaldi decided to outflank this position. One flanking party was sent out on each side, one to outflank the church and the other the inn. Once the flank attacks began a third company launched a frontal assault on the Hungarian position. Despite the loss of several officers in the central company the Hungarian position was soon captured. This attack began at around 4pm.

Urban now realised that the pass was in Italian hands, and sent reinforcements up the steep road from Como. Garibaldi’s men held off the Austrian attacks, and eventually Urban's men fell back into Como. The Austrians still outnumbered Garibaldi’s men, but the defeat on the San Fermo pass had badly affected Urban's morale. While Garibaldi decided if he should risk an attack on the strong Austrian forces he could see in Como, Urban decided to retreat. When Garibaldi’s men reached the town after the slow descent from the pass they discovered that it was undefended.

Garibaldi didn’t stay at Como for long. Urban had been defeated but his army was still largely intact, and could easily be reinforced. After spending one day resting at Como, Garibaldi marched his men back towards Varese, from where they launched an unsuccessful attack on the Austrian base at Laveno (30 May 1859).

The Second War of Italian Unification 1859-61, Frederick C. Schneid. Focuses on the three separate conflicts that made up the Second War of Italian Unification (the Franco-Austrian War, Garibaldi's invasion of the kingdom of Naples and the invasion of the Papal State), the conflict that saw the creation of the Kingdom of Italy. [read full review]
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (15 January 2013), Battle of San Fermo, 27 May 1859 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_san_fermo.html

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